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Platforms and Infrastructure


Many non-technical stakeholders need help understanding the difference between platform and infrastructure. This misconception presents a risk to the success of a product.

Let's start by setting some basic definitions.


ITIL provides an excellent pre-2000 definition of IT infrastructure.

"All of the hardware, software, networks, and facilities that are required to develop, test, deliver, monitor, manage and support IT services."


Without actually doing any polls or collecting official data, I imagine that platform is probably one of the top 10 most overused and ambiguous terms in technology.

This ambiguity is likely the root of the conflation and conflicts associated with its relationship to infrastructure:

  1. Many definitions of platform are derived from a definition of infrastructure.
  2. Some definitions of platform are presented as interchangeable with infrastructure.

I've come up with a light definition:

A platform is a framework consisting of software, systems, or middleware that allows users to construct something of value.


Differentiating the terms can help untangle some of the challenges mentioned above. Amberly Dressler (by way of Tom Murdock and Albert Barron) provides one of my favorite analogies: Pizza as a Service

Infrastructure is foundational, consisting of the primary ingredients. Regarding technology, these are pieces, components, and other nouns that describe a thing.

Infrastructure supports.

Earlier, I mentioned that most platform definitions are inherently derivative of an infrastructure explanation. Postel's Law (a.k.a the robustness principle) states, "be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others." This principle is one of many good practices for API design. APIs provide capabilities to consumers through declarative verbs (i.e., commonly CRUD) to abstract the sequences of mixing ingredients to offer the published capabilities.

Pizza-as-a-Service suggests that the platform capabilities are the oven, fire, electricity, and gas. When we use these capabilities, we can do so without having to understand the fundamental physical properties of fire, the details of the utilities (electric/gas), or the mechanical aspects of the oven.

Platforms provide a way of taking raw materials and organizing them in a manner that accelerates work. Generalized platforms provide broad types of work, meaning we may have to perform additional effort to apply the platform to a specific use case. Conversely, specialized platforms narrowly approach certain use cases to provide a production-capable out-of-box experience.

Platform enables.


IaaS (Infrastructure-as-a-Service) and PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service) are concepts that continue to become staples in technology as organizations flock to the cloud.

X-as-a-Service distinguishes between what a cloud vendor manages and what the user manages.

Before the cloud, there was no "-as-a-Service." It was very much like old televisions without remote controls. If we had to change the channels, it meant getting out of the chair. We managed everything. We had to understand everything. We had to staff for everything.

Infrastructure-as-a-Service allows the vendor to assume responsibility for all loud servers, NoC locations, networking runs, and appliances. The concepts remain the same. We still provision servers, configure networks, and manage aspects of the infrastructure. IaaS insulates us from physical touch-points. We don't cut our fingers on the frustrating little nuts that fit into rack units, and we don't have to deal with ethernet cables that were measured a few inches too short.

Platform-as-a-Service moves us a few miles up the road. IaaS gets us out of the server rooms; however, we are still working with the same basic units of infrastructure: storage, servers, and networking.

Storage requires understanding RAID, multipathing, file systems, recovery, various means of dynamic expansion, I/O characteristics, and communication protocols. Servers require operating systems, firmware updates, peripherals, drivers, and various software subsystems. Networking has a vast alphabet soup of protocols that comprises a seven-layer model (OSI) to sort out interconnectivity.

IaaS may have taken our bodies out of the server rooms but left behind our brains. PaaS provides relief by providing a middling layer of capabilities. Heroku and many serverless platforms are great examples of PaaS.

Why does this matter?

Effort. Time. Cost.

I mentioned that understanding the difference between these terms was a critical aspect of the success of products. The difference defines the effort, time, and cost of being assigned to your organization.

Many platforms can accelerate your business offerings if you work in a broad industry like MarTech or eCommerce. You are sharing a talent pool, and the industry's commoditization generally means there is feature parity across competitors. Businesses usually differentiate their products in non-functional means such as brand marketing and aesthetics. Infrastructure and platforms provide little lift in these areas, but cost reduction does. Several years ago, economizing OpEx provided a competitive advantage among businesses that struggled to do so. Yesterday's advantage is today's requirement. Companies in broad markets are far more likely to use PaaS (or SaaS) as much as possible to minimize their cost centers.

Some organizations attempt to innovate service offerings in these broader markets to differentiate. Some opt to compete head-to-head, believing they have a game-changing approach that can disrupt the industry. Others contend by specialization through focusing on niche demographics in the industry. Platforms designed for broad strokes may not close the gap for specific applications. Organizations might be required to start from IaaS to develop their niche-specific platforms. They have to determine if the cost to do so is worth owning that customer base.

Smaller markets allow more room for error. Head-to-head innovation poses less risk, assuming the market entry price is reasonable. The trade-offs remain mostly the same. However, in these smaller markets, it is less likely that platform offerings are available (commercial or open source) because the use case is sparse. This trend is consistent with most small markets.

I hope this sheds some light on the differences between infrastructure and platforms and how a careful understanding can drive successful initiatives.

Postscript: Platform Thinking & Digital Platform

The concept of a platform has a broader context than just technical capabilities. Thoughtworks has published content about platform-thinking, which shares a symbiotic relationship with a platform to maximize return on investment. We refer to the combination of the two operating in unison as a Digital Platform.